This essay is about learning how to be useless. As such, it dovetails nicely with a recent piece I wrote on these pages about striving for idleness. I agreed with Mark Taylor’s Buddhist notion that “idleness allows time for the mind to wander to places never before imagined and to return transformed.”1
Being useless, like idleness, is often equated with being old. And, indeed, that is what I am. I spend a lot of time in reverie, which most would call idleness. I have to keep pulling myself back to the present. However, I’m not meditating but practicing what has been called the curse of the old.
I forget where I put my keys. I can’t remember where I left my glasses. I walk into the kitchen from my office and then stand there perplexed, wondering: what was it I came here to do?
Barry Magid suggests that’s okay in a piece called “Uselessness: the koan of just sitting.”2 His take is, rather than racking your brain to remember what you think you’re supposed to be doing, just kick back and enjoy the moment. He writes that feeling useless can be a profound experience that we Americans rarely have. Instead, we feel compelled to keep busy doing things: Racing around earning money, having fun, helping others, whatever it may be.
We are convinced that everything must have a purpose. It doesn’t.
To just be—what modern society calls uselessness—means forgetting what we are doing, or in the words of the artist Robert Irwin, “Seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees.” According to Magid, this kind of seeing “involves a loss of boundaries” and a letting go of ourselves as separate observers, “placing us within the midst of the the very landscape” we usually feel separate from. Buddhism calls this intermixing of self and world: “being actualized by myriad things.”
By dissolving these boundaries, we become whole, developing a personalized sense of place, within a community of neighbors, geographical topography, and the more than human world around us. We overcome the curse of our Western heritage that artificially separates our thinking mind from the outside world. That, to me, is the essence of what it means to be alive. Charlene Spretnak in The Resurgence of the Real, reinforces this notion, warning us that our hypermodern world is robbing us of our three most critical birthrights: our bodies, nature, and our sense of place.3
As I sit here on my deck writing this, breathing in deeply the almost erotic, earthy scent of spring, I feel one with my body within my sanctuary of place. Meanwhile, so many around me spurn the only flesh and blood body they will ever have, yearning instead for the perfect body projected on the screen of their mind by advertisements and social media. Nature becomes just another accessory, a movie reel backdrop to soap opera lives. Worse yet, as more and more of us scurry around, always looking for the next best place, we are chopping off the roots that make us human.
Indigenous people have always understood that sense of place is the sacred scaffolding upon which one grows a meaningful life. Perhaps, like it or not, that will be the final rallying cry of us Baby Boomers: To promote the importance of sense of place while extolling the benefits of idleness and uselessness.
3 The Resurgence of the Real, by Charlene Spretnack: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company: 1997.